The Russian revolution and the British left

Submitted by Matthew on 31 May, 2017 - 10:46 Author: Chris Mathews

It is February 1917. A large crowd are gathered to hear socialists and pacifists denounce the war. As the speeches start the snow begins fall... The hundreds who assembled that snowy night, looking like a scene out of Dr Zhivago, were not in Petrograd 1917 but in Waterfoot, Rossendale. The rally held that snowy evening was to support the candidature of Albert Taylor, a local anti-war trade union leader and member of the British Socialist Party (BSP) in a parliamentary by-election; the campaign on his behalf (he had been imprisoned at the request of the Liberal party agent) was a coalition of pacifists and socialists. Their campaign was able to secure nearly a quarter of the vote.

Within a month of the first Russian revolution (in February according to the Russian calendar and March by the Western) British support for that initial revolution garnered support from a similar coalition of pacifists and socialists looking both to end the war and to fight for a more just society. Taylor would go on to support the second October (Bolshevik) revolution and on his release from prison he flew the red flag of socialism out of his bedroom window.*

The British establishment had allied with Tsarist Russia at the outbreak of war and from the outset many in the labour movement had opposed an alliance with what was regarded as the most reactionary and autocratic government in Europe. The revolution when it came in 1917 was hailed on the left. The BSP, the largest British Marxist party, proclaimed “Long Live The Revolution” in its newspaper The Call. The socialist Daily Herald declared “a new star of hope... arisen over Europe”.
At a packed Albert Hall meeting George Lansbury of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and editor of Daily Herald said of the February revolution “How much it is by far the greatest and best thing that has every happened in the history of the world”.

While the labour movement cheered on the February revolution the pace of class struggle quickened. Strikes broke out in engineering in Rochdale, Clydeside and the Tyne. There were unofficial strikes in the coal mines of South Wales and the trams of East Lancashire. A “Women’s Peace Crusade” was able to mobilise large numbers of working-class women against the war. Probably more worrying for the establishment, just months after a whole section of the French army had mutinied, soldiers of the British army in France at a training camp at Etaples mutinied.

Against this background a broad labour movement conference was held in Leeds in June 1917 in support of the Russian revolution. Convened by the Independent Labour Party and the British Socialist Party it was attended by 1,150 delegates from trade unions, trades councils and local Labour Parties, socialist parties, women’s and other organisations. It was chaired by Robert Smillie of the Miners’ Federation and the speakers included Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, Ernest Bevin, Mrs Despard, Bertrand Russell, William Gallacher and Sylvia Pankhurst. Resolutions were passed congratulating the Russians, calling for an end to the war, supporting a charter of liberties and calling for the setting up of Local Councils of Workmen and Soldiers’ Delegates or Soviets. Even Ramsay MacDonald, who had resigned the leadership of the Labour Party in opposition to the war at its outbreak (and who would later go on to be the first Labour Prime Minister before betraying the Party) said of the February revolution, “When the war broke out, organised Labour in this country lost the initiative. It became a mere echo of the old governing classes and opinions. Now the Russian Revolution has once again given you the chance to take the initiative yourselves... the great opportunity which the war gave to the Labour Party to take hold of diplomacy was thrown away, because the Labour Party never saw what the real meaning of the war was, and without the Russian Revolution, the opportunity would not have occurred.”

While MacDonald and Snowden, the two leading stalwarts of the post-war Labour establishment, spoke up rhetorically in support of the February revolution and Soviets, nothing very concrete emerged out the Leeds Convention. Some local conferences were held, but no lasting organisation was established. The unity of the movement in support of the Russian revolution began to fracture as the revolution moved to the left. When in October (November our calendar) the second Russian revolution took place and the “Bolsheviks” took power through the soviets, the uneasy alliance of pacifists, social-democrats, and revolutionaries, fractured over what should be the correct response.

Meanwhile Lloyd George’s coalition government prepared to intervene in the Russian civil war, in order to crush the revolution and return Russia to the fight against Germany, spending it has been estimated upwards of £100 million to support the White forces fighting fledgling soviet state. In contrast the January 1918 conference of the Labour Party, only 17 years old and still very much a loose coalition of “liberal” trade unionists and socialist groups, greeted the October revolution with a spontaneous singing of the Red Flag and cheering the names of the revolution’s leaders as they were mentioned.

Labour at that time had no individual membership. Individuals had to join affiliated organisations. In addition to affiliated trade unions, the two largest Party affiliates were the Independent Labour Party and the British Socialist Party. The ILP was by far the larger of the two, starting the war with 30,000 members. The ILP was an organisation of many contradictions. Founded to fight for independent working-class representation, it has been portrayed as Methodist and Pacifist. However over the years many of its leading lights had gained their initial political training in the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF). While many of its leading members were opposed to the war and actively campaigned against it and led the anti-conscription campaign, others took an active part in supporting the war. While ILP MP J R Clynes became a minister in the Liberal led coalition, other ILP members led rent strikes in Glasgow and were heavily involved in wartime engineering strikes. Many in the ILP supported the revolution, supporting the “Hands off Russia” solidarity campaign, and later its left tried to move the party closer to the Communist Party and Communist International.

The British Socialist Party (BSP) evolved out of an attempt to unite the ILP and the first British Marxist group, the Social Democratic Federation, in 1911-12. Unity failed, but some on the left of the ILP and some socialist independents were persuaded to join the SDF and help form the British Socialist Party. The BSP was divided at the outbreak of the war, with its ageing conservative leadership under Henry Hyndman supporting the war and its younger members opposing. Both sides could agree to campaign around defence of working-class living conditions during wartime by agitating for rent controls and state control of food supplies and employment. They were also able to campaign against the worst aspects of anti-German jingoism, it saying, “... we appeal to you to distinguish between the mass of the German people and the Prussian military caste which dominates the German empire”.

By 1916 the BSP had split over the war. The old leadership group around the SDF’s founder Henry Hyndman left to form a pro-war National Socialist Party. Those who remained went on to be the core group around which the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was coalesced.

After the split the BSP was able to affiliate to the Labour Party and made both anti-war campaigning and industrial struggles more central to its everyday work. Among those central to the post-split BSP were a number of exiles from the Russian Tsarist empire, and they were central in shaping the BSP response to the October revolution. The exiles included Joe Fineberg, who was an early, if unofficial representative of the Bolsheviks. For a time Theodore Rothstein was the chief representative of the Bolsheviks in Britain. Both eventually returned to Russia. Zelda Kahan, who remained in Britain, worked alongside Rothstein in honing the BSP’s anti war stance, and helped and campaigned for the formation of the CPGB.

John Maclean, probably the leading Scottish BSP member, and well known for his anti-war stance, rejected the majority’s semi-pacifist stance, believing the main enemy was at home. He said, “Our first business was to hate the British capitalist system”. Because of his advanced anti-war stance he was made Bolshevik consul in Glasgow, although never acknowledged as such by the government.
Maclean spent much of 1918 in prison for sedition. Unfortunately he parted ways with his comrades and later took a wrong turn into left nationalism.

The most successful area of work for the left supporters of the October revolution was the solidarity campaign in support of the Bolshevik Revolution, “Hands Off Russia”. The campaign was founded in 1919 to organise opposition to the British intervention on the side of the White armies in the Russian Civil War and brought together the disparate sections of the British left.

As well as the BSP and ILP, there was the Workers’ Suffrage Federation of Sylvia Pankhurst and the Socialist Labour Party, both hostile to working in the Labour Party, but supportive of October. The National Committee of the campaign reflected its broad support. In January 1919; the National Committee had representatives from the four organisations like William Paul (Socialist Labour Party), WP Coates (national secretary, British Socialist Party), Harry Pollitt (national organiser, Workers’ Suffrage Federation). David Ramsay (treasurer, Socialist Labour Party) and Alfred Comrie were active in the campaign. The campaign was also able to call upon a broader range of labour movement support including William Gallacher, David Kirkwood, Cecil L’Estrange Malone, Tom Mann, and Robert Smillie.

Central to this solidarity work was George Lansbury and his Daily Herald newspaper. The Herald was able to expose the blockade of Soviet Russia and the plans the government had for intervention. In 1919, the campaign published a pamphlet which asserted: “The imperialist Powers know that the very essence of Socialism is its international policy of a World Republic of Labour. They realise that the triumph of Socialism in Russia is but the first step towards the triumph of Socialism internationally. Hence their united designs and attacks to crush the Bolsheviks in order to prevent the spread and triumph of revolutionary Socialism in other countries.”

Sylvia Pankhurst reporting in the Workers Dreadnought in August 1919 said, “For months past ‘Hands Off Russia’ has found its way into the resolution of every labour and Socialist propaganda meeting and literature about Russia has been the more eagerly read than any other”.

Probably the highpoint of the campaign came in May 1920 when East London dockers blocked the cargo ship Jolly George sailing to Poland. The arms on board were destined for the Polish war against Soviet Russia. The active participants in “Hands off Russia” campaign would use the experience of working together to go on to found the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Many were drawn to the October Russian revolution, but probably none more strange than Cecil L’Estrange Malone. Malone was a pioneer of early military flight and wartime hero. He was elected as a Liberal MP in the snap 1918 general election, and was a resolute anti-socialist until in 1919 he visited Russia, where he met many leading Bolsheviks including Leon Trotsky. While in Russia he seems to have had an overnight conversion to the cause of socialism. On his return he left the Liberals and joined the BSP as their first MP before becoming the Communist Party’s first MP. He was never quite trusted by some on the left due to his military past, and John Maclean refused to appear on platforms with him. However for two years he threw himself into revolutionary politics with gusto. Klugman, the official CPGB historian, describes Malone like this, “In the first months of the Party’s existence Col. Malone was very active not only in Parliament, but addressing mass meetings and rallies all over the country. Whatever his theoretical weaknesses, he was a man of passion, moved by the revolutionary tremors that were shaking the world, full of wrath and indignation against the powers that be, and after a fiery speech in the Albert Hall on 7 November 1920, he was charged with sedition under Regulation 42 of the Defence of the Realm Act... After a courageous self-defence he was sentenced to six months in the Second Division.”

Malone himself, talking about a possible future revolutionary crisis, described the possible fate of some of the ruling class, “What are a few Churchills or a few Curzons on lamp-posts compared to the massacre of thousands of human beings?” After his trial Malone was stripped of the OBE which he had been awarded for his wartime work. Some believe his imprisonment could have had more to do with his involvement with a shadowy plan to set up secret “Red Officer” course aimed at training revolutionaries for future “Red Army”. It is clear is that he was caught in a MI5 sting operation. For a time after his release he spoke widely in favour of Communist affiliation to the Labour Party and in support of the CPGB. However, by 1924 he had joined the ILP and was back of the road to respectability.

The success of the October revolution and the experience of the Bolsheviks in leading that revolution was of untold importance to the British revolutionary left. The foundation in 1920 of the Communist Party (CPGB) was a massive leap forward for class politics in Great Britain. Initially the CPGB united all the major Marxist groups in Britain, both the political and syndicalist wings of the movement. With the development of united front tactics, and under pressure of the Soviet led Communist International (CI), the CPGB was able to intervene in class struggle at a much higher level than its pre-war components. Under the tutelage of the CI the CPGB created the Minority Movement, as a “rank-and-file” movement in the trade unions and a National Left Wing movement was able to play a similar role in the Labour Party.

British socialists were not manipulated into supporting the October revolution. As Arthur Horner the South Wales miners leader said of this period said, “Above all, the Russian Revolution had inspired millions with the idea that the working people could take power and create a classless society...” British socialists, with their deep roots in the labour movement, “...came to accept the Bolshevik viewpoint not because it was imposed on them but because they accepted its validity” in the fight for socialism.

* It was later reported in the local Rossendale press that drunken soldiers outraged by his red flags smashed all his house windows on Armistice Night 11 November 1918.